Sunday, May 23, 2010

Utah: Clemency Hearing for Ronnie Lee Gardner

The State's Board of Pardon and Parole has agreed to hold a two-day hearing for forty-nine year old Ronnie Lee Gardner, who is set to be executed on June 18, by firing squad. Gardner was sentenced to death in 1985 after a female accomplice slipped him a handgun in a courthouse while he was in the process of being tried for robbing and murdering a man in a Salt Lake City bar. At the time of the arrest, Gardner was also an escapee from the State Prison, where he was serving sentences for burglary and robbery.

After the female slipped the loaded gun into the courthouse building in a bag of clothes, she passed it to Gardner as he came through a doorway. A guard shot him in the shoulder almost immediately. But, while handcuffed, Gardner managed to shoot his own attorney in the head and severely wound an unarmed sheriff's bailiff before being detained. At the time of the incident, he was twenty-three years old.

Utah "has" the death penalty but has only executed six people since 1976 (the standard benchmark following the Supreme Court's decisions in Furman and Gregg) and no one since 1999. State law allowed Gardner, a self-professing Mormon, to choose between lethal injection or the firing squad because he was sentenced before 2004. That is to say, those sentenced after 2004 do not have such a choice. Gardner's request formal request to the court for the firing squad even featured the word "please." So, five executioners with .30-30 rifles will stand 20 feet away from Gardner and aim at his heart.

It is reported that both family and friends of the victim oppose the execution and they are expected to participate in the hearing. While the Board appears very interested in talking to Gardner, face to face, his attorney appears to be concerned that his client's arthritic condition will not allow such interaction, at least not for any considerable amount of time. It is reported that the Board will also hear expert testimony about Gardner’s "dysfunctional background" – evidence that was not fully presented to the jury. One of its members is recusing himself from the proceedings because he was once Gardner's juvenile probation officer.

Amnesty International welcomes the Board’s decision to hold this hearing, and urges the Board to grant clemency. See story here and here.

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